Even Tiny Villages Can Have Big Housing Problems

By U Cast Studios
June 5, 2023

Trumansburg New York Main Street
Main Street in Trumansburg, NY. (Source: Wikimedia Commons/Kenneth C. Zirkel.)

The village of Trumansburg, New York, has a lot going for it: a rich history dating to 1793, a picturesque location in the Finger Lakes region, and an appealing main street with successful local businesses. It’s surrounded by fertile farmland, including agricultural programs operated by nearby Cornell University.

This article was written by Ben Abramson and originally published by Strong Towns.

Trumansburg also has a housing crisis. Deputy Mayor Ben Darfler, a Strong Towns member, ticks off a list of challenges that will be familiar to elected officials across North America: “We are feeling the same level of housing crunch as anywhere else … We have seen housing prices rise precipitously … we’ve seen a lot of outflow from New York City and other major metropolitan areas … Our available for-sale housing stock is next to nothing.”

Data from the Ithaca Realtors Association, which covers the county surrounding Trumansburg, show that from 2018 to 2022, available housing inventory went from an average of four months to one month (5–6 months is considered a “balanced market”). During that same period, average home prices have soared from $225,000 to $325,000.

Trumansburg officials and its residents have felt these effects in different ways. Residents, especially seniors, who want to downsize are reluctant to sell with nowhere to move to, and new buyers can’t acquire the homes seniors would be vacating. Increased property values have led to higher taxes, while the village has also seen major price increases to provide basic services. The dynamic also affects renters. “If you have a [housing] crunch, you probably have an affordability crisis,” says Darfler.

Now the village is trying to tackle its housing issues with a revised comprehensive plan and zoning reforms that emphasize infill development and incremental housing. Under the proposed revisions, homeowners would be allowed to build accessory dwelling units on existing lots. Developers of new housing would receive incentives in the form of reduced lot sizes for including affordable housing, at a range of 20–35% per project. Many older, non-conforming lots would be zoned into compliance.

The new comprehensive plan compiles statistics about local housing, details the trajectory of the village, and anticipates growth. Darfler and town officials hope that these zoning revisions “will ease the pressure of providing housing in an area that has little buildable vacant land available for expansion.”

At the same time, existing lots would be capped to a maximum of 20 dwelling units on a lot regardless of size, and the village would keep current size requirements for lots with five or more units. Darfler identifies the challenge as “threading the needle” between enabling new housing inventory and retaining the character that makes the village desirable for buyers and renters. He also laments that so much focus on affordable housing is for large-scale projects encouraged by federal funding structures.

Erica Tauzer, a project manager for EDR, which consulted on the village’s comprehensive plan, says the area’s agricultural heritage plays an important role in support for zoning reform. “One thing that is unique to these rural areas is that promoting infill development is protecting farmland,” says Tauzer, a similar motivation to recent zoning reforms in Montana.

Trumansburg’s challenges show how the housing crisis in North America is as relevant in a village of 1,800 people with 800 homes as it is in major cities. But Darfler points to some small-town advantages. First, the village is small enough that it’s possible to examine, map, and analyze every existing lot. He also points to the traditional development pattern: “because we’re a historical village, and because so much of it has been built pre-zoning, we do have a lot of really wonderful mix at that smaller scale that we can reference and point back to.”

To that end, Trumansburg’s zoning reform would reverse rules that rendered much of its existing building stock in violation of its current codes (as happened in Richfield, Minnesota). This would “re-legalize the type of housing that was there originally in the 1800s and 1900s,” observes Tauzer, compared to zoning enacted in the 20th century to impose single-family homes as the default.

Trumansburg’s tiny size also comes with some disadvantages. Some advocates have called for more robust design guidelines or form-based codes, but Darfler says the village wouldn’t have sufficient resources to enforce them.

Trumansburg is popular with visitors coming to the region for its many wineries and scenic lakes, but it has thus far been spared one issue challenging some of its neighbors: short-term rentals for visitors squeezing housing supply.

Darfler seeks to ensure that Trumansburg’s plans focus on the “affordability issue” for current and future residents, and insofar as it can be controlled, help the village avoid pricing out the people who love it. “There is something incredibly special about Trumansburg and we want to figure out how to maintain that feeling without it becoming an expensive enclave,” says Darfler.

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